Protect detenus from COVID-19, says ICRC

Special Correspondent New Delhi 08 April 2020 02:48 IST
Updated: 08 April 2020 02:02 IST

Red Cross panel expresses concern that places of detention may be hit hard by the pandemic

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Tuesday urged the detaining authorities across the world to protect the health of detenus, staff and surrounding communities, to prevent the effects of COVID-19.

The ICRC expressed concern that places of detention might be hit hard by the pandemic as detainees were particularly vulnerable to the spread of virus.

“Clean water can be a luxury while soap, chlorine and other necessary equipment may not be available in many places of detention, particularly in low-income countries or those affected by conflict,” it said.


An ICRC statement said such facilities were often overcrowded, which prevented physical distancing. “They may also lack ventilation and have insufficient health care, contributing to the easy transmission of infectious disease,” it added.

‘Good for society’

Vincent Ballon, the head of ICRC’s detention unit, said: “Prisons are not walled off from the world when it comes to disease transmission. Viruses can enter and leave a detention facility through family visits, detention staff, delivery personnel and detainees who enter or leave when newly sentenced or going to court. Detainee health must be protected, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also for the good of wider society.”

The Committee said improving access to clean water, hygiene materials and other measures, such as the setting up of hand-washing stations, could prevent the spread of disease inside and outside detention facilities.

Risk of contamination

It suggested that places of detention needed to adapt their daily routine to mitigate the risks of contamination while preventing excessive and unnecessary disruption of the daily life of detainees.

“The ICRC has seen such measures prevent the spread of Ebola and cholera in prisons,” it said.

The Geneva Conventions require that prisoners of war and civilian internees are entitled to regular medical inspections to supervise their state of health and detect contagious diseases.

The Conventions also provide direction for isolation wards to prevent the spread of contagious diseases, if necessary, ensuring that isolation/segregation is humane at all times.

Standard practices

The ICRC works with the authorities concerned to strengthen standard practices. It also supports disinfection measures and improved sanitation and other infrastructure in prisons.

“The problems and shortcomings in detention systems that worried us before COVID-19 have not gone away. These weaknesses may unfortunately increase the health risks for detainees and staff if COVID-19 enters places of detention,” Mr. Ballon said.

COVID-19-related restrictions have made family visits more difficult, adding stress for families and detainees, the ICRC observed, suggesting alternative ways of communication, including phone and video calls.

Reducing the number of people in prison can help reduce COVID-19 risks. The ICRC has brought various options to the attention of States, judiciaries, prosecutors and detaining authorities, helping them to take decisions in this regard.

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